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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23

Blockhouses in Canada, 1749-1841: A Comparative Report and Catalogue

by Richard J. Young

Part I: A Comparative Study

Blockhouses and Coastal Batteries in the War of 1812

The outbreak of war between Great Britain and the United States in June 1812 exposed the coastal communities of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to the threat of attacks by American privateers. A conciliatory agreement reached by the frontier towns of Maine and the governments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia did little to alleviate the problem of privateers from states farther to the south. Batteries with blockhouses behind for support were constructed at the more important harbours on the coasts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, at Lunenburg, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Digby, Parrsboro, Guysborough and St. Andrews. But while the frontier battles were won and lost in Upper and Lower Canada and a lively privateering and naval war was waged on the Atlantic, the Maritime provinces, for the most part, remained spectators to the action. The possibility — if not the probability — of invasion remained a constant threat, but the temporary coastal fortifications were never tested.

The War of 1812 was unpopular with the majority of the citizens of New England, who had little sympathy or understanding for the grievances of the Western War Party in Congress. On the frontiers of Maine, the announcement of the declaration of war was promptly countered by a gesture of friendship toward the neighbouring settlements in New Brunswick. A town meeting held in Eastport, Maine, unanimously voted a resolution to "preserve as good an understanding as possible with the inhabitants of New Brunswick, and to discountenance all depredations on the property of the people of the provinces."1 This announcement was greeted with relief by the inhabitants of St. Andrews, nearest British town to Eastport, and evoked a reciprocal gesture from them. The declarations were received as good news by the governments of both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. On 3 July 1812, Governor Sherbrooke of Nova Scotia informed the executive council of the Eastport declaration. In response, the members of the council advised the governor to issue this proclamation:

Whereas every species of predatory Warfare carried on against the defenceless Inhabitants living on the shores of the United States contiguous to this province and New Brunswick can answer no good purpose, and will greatly distress individuals. I have therefore thought it proper by and with the advice of His Majesty's Council to order and direct all His Majesty's Subjects under my government to abstain from molesting the Inhabitants living on the shores of the United States contiguous to this Province and to New Brunswick and on no account to distress or molest the goods or unarmed coasting vessels belonging to the defenceless inhabitants of the frontiers, so long as they shall abstain from on their Part any Acts of hostility or molestation towards the Inhabitants of this Province and New Brunswick. It is therefore my wish and desire that the subjects of the United States living on the Frontiers may pursue their usual trade and occupations without molestation so long as they shall act in a similar way towards the frontier inhabitants of this Province and New Brunswick.2

Whitehall supported this policy; the British were preoccupied with Napoleon's armies in Europe, and the war in North America was as unpopular with the ministry as it was in New England. The British government wanted only to end the conflict quickly, and appreciated any peaceful developments.

On the local level, the proclamation was a wise one. First, neither Nova Scotia nor New Brunswick had sufficient military resources to undertake offensive movements against Maine: moreover an open military operation against New England would undoubtedly have provoked a similar and more destructive response from the populous northern states. Second, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Upper and Lower Canada (and even Great Britain) needed a continuous stream of provisions which only the Americans could supply. By keeping the peace on the northeastern frontier, the British hoped that smuggling and even open trade would keep supplies moving in spite of wartime conditions. Third, at the beginning of the war there were neither adequate naval forces nor fortifications along the coast to prevent destructive privateering raids by American adventurers. The proclamation, Sherbrooke and the council hoped, would at least buy the time needed to erect some defences.

Events at St. Andrews, New Brunswick, provided the clearest example of the effects of the war on small coastal towns. Situated on the boundary as it was, St. Andrews was able to maintain an amicable and profitable relationship with the nearest American post at Eastport. Despite their importance as commercial centres for trans-shipment and smuggling, neither town was of any military significance to the war objectives of either nation. Consequently, both towns adopted completely defensive attitudes. Fortifications were built and the reinforced militia drilled on each side of the border, but neither town was willing to give up the lucrative opportunities which the war presented for the sake of insignificant depredations on the other's territory. The primary fear in St. Andrews was not the town's immediate American neighbours, but licensed privateers from further south. The nature of St. Andrews' fortifications reflects this concern.

At the beginning of the war, the only defence work in St. Andrews was Fort Tipperary. Standing behind and above the town, this small stockaded work served only as barracks for the token garrison force stationed at the border. It had been built in 1808 when war with the United States seemed imminent. Despite the lack of interest of both the provincial government and the British military in fortifying the harbour in 1812, the citizens of St. Andrews considered the danger real enough, and set to work on their own account.

Shortly after war was declared, the civilians and militia of the town turned out to provide money and labour to begin construction of defences. Two batteries, one at each end of the town, were "thrown up by the inhabitants to defend the entrances of the Harbour against the attempts of Privateers upon the Shipping."3 They were crude works and certainly did not meet professional standards. The only ordnance the townspeople could get in these early months was reported to be "1 eighteen [pounder], one Nine, and one four pounder Carronade."4 Also there were only 30 rounds of ammunition for each gun. Colonel Gibbons, an officer of the New Brunswick militia, visited the works early in 1813 and suggested that the batteries be "secured from being turned by a predatory force of the above description, by the erection of a substantial Block House immediately in the rear of each."5 Gibbons returned to the town in early spring to superintend the construction of the blockhouses. They were completed by June.

Captain James McLaughlan, the resident Royal Engineer at Saint John, travelled to St. Andrews in May 1813 and severely criticized the batteries. He wrote to Major Gustavus Nicolis, the Commanding Royal Engineer in Halifax, that "they [are so] badly constructed that the tide at high water is nearly upon a level with the holes of the embrasures."6 McLaughlan remained in St. Andrews for a month to supervise the improvements he considered necessary. He also arranged to have heavier ordnance sent to strengthen the works. During the summer, a third battery and blockhouse were constructed at Joes Point to protect the ferry crossing there, and to cover the shipping in the St. Croix River.

These batteries were simple semicircular earthworks. By late 1813 each of them mounted three 18-pounders on traversing platforms. Two nine-pounders were positioned outside the breastwork of each at the water's edge. Immediately in the rear stood a two-storeyed loopholed blockhouse 18 feet square. A five-pounder iron carronade on a standing wooden carriage could fire through any of the four portholes cut in the upper storey of each blockhouse.7 Besides mounting ordnance to cover the battery, the blockhouses served as barracks for artillerymen and militia on active duty, and as small-arms and ammunitions depots.

Money for the construction of the two original blockhouses and batteries was raised by subscription from the inhabitants of St. Andrews. Christopher Scott and Robert Pagan, two leading merchants of the town, contributed a large share of the funds; Scott later claimed that he had personally spent £175 on the West Point blockhouse.8 Colonel Gibbons had said that he could promise no remuneration, but felt sure that once the military authorities realized the necessity and value of the works, they would reimburse the civilians for their expenditure. They did not: they refused Scott's request for compensation, arguing that the West Point blockhouse had been built to protect private property. These early defences at St. Andrews were the only fortifications built during the war by private financing.

In Nova Scotia the more prosperous coastal towns also feared assault by American privateers. Although these towns were of no strategic significance, Governor Sherbrooke and Major Nicolls shared the expressed sentiments of the provincial assembly that the most exposed settlements needed some sort of protection. An emergency session of the assembly was convened on 21 July 1812 to consider measures to deal with the war. On Saturday, 25 July, a committee of the whole house considering supply voted that

a sum not exceeding Eight Thousand Pounds, should be granted for erecting Block Houses, and other temporary Works at the most exposed points; and for providing and arming Boats, and for defraying the incidental Expences incurred by this species of Defence for the security of the Province.9

This money was put at the disposal of the governor and council. Under the direction of the Commanding Royal Engineer, private contractors were engaged to build the blockhouses.10 The construction of batteries and blockhouses was supervised either by the local commander of the militia or by one of the Royal Engineers stationed at Halifax. Accordingly, in the fall of 1812 and the spring and summer of 1813, batteries and blockhouses were built at Lunenburg, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Digby, Parrsboro and Guysborough.

At Lunenburg, two works were erected in the fall of 1812 for the security of the town and the defence of the harbour. One blockhouse was built above the western end of the town on Windmill Hill, it was two storeys high, loopholed and picketed in and immediately in front of it a battery was constructed. The guns mounted in the battery were three iron 12-pounders, one iron nine-pounder and two brass six-pounders.11

Another blockhouse and battery en barbette were situated about a mile and one-half from the town on Jesser's Point, which juts sharply into the harbour. The blockhouse had two storeys and was built on a stone foundation.12 A brass four-pounder was mounted in the upper storey. The battery on the point mounted one iron nine-pounder and three brass four-pounders.13

At Liverpool, on a point of land at the eastern entrance to the inner harbour, a blockhouse and battery en barbette were constructed late in 1812. The two-storey blockhouse was built in the open gorge of the earthwork battery. The second storey of the blockhouse mounted two three-pounder brass carronades. From the battery, three iron 12-pounders controlled the entrance to Liverpool harbour.14 Farther out in the harbour, two advance batteries were constructed facing one another from opposite shores, one at Black Point on the western side, one at Wreck Point on the eastern.15

In Yarmouth harbour a four-gun battery with a blockhouse in the rear was built on Bunker's Peninsula. The battery was located at the southwest point of the peninsula, and the guns covered the entrance of the harbour. In 1814 the battery mounted two iron 12-pounders on iron carriages and two brass three-pounders.16 A small redoubt, a square earthwork, stood behind the battery. Inside the work was a two-storey blockhouse, a wooden magazine and a small guardhouse. The upper storey of the blockhouse mounted one iron four-pounder.17

Digby Gut, the narrow channel leading from the Bay of Fundy to Annapolis Basin, was fortified in 1812 to provide an advance defence to both Digby and Annapolis. Two four-gun batteries with supporting blockhouses were built, one on each side of the gut about 50 feet above water level. Four 18-pounders mounted in each battery discouraged any attempts by Americans to enter the basin.18

On a hill slightly above and behind the middle of the town of Digby, a solitary blockhouse was built in 1812 to oppose an enemy landing. The blockhouse provided a rendezvous for the militia and served as an arms and munitions store. Here, in 1813, a non-commissioned officer lived and took care of the stores.19

On a high hill immediately behind the town of Parrsboro, a large two-storey blockhouse was built in 1813. It provided a place of defence for the town, and the guns mounted in it protected the harbour. A gunboat service was based at Parrsboro harbour to protect the ferry crossing Minas Basin and to provide a patrol for the entrance to this busy waterway. The gunboats mounted brass six-pounders.20

Apparently a blockhouse was built at the town and harbour of Guysborough.21 This was the only fortification built during the War of 1812 to protect the less populated eastern shore of the province. No information could be obtained about its situation in the town.

At Sydney Mines, on the north shore of the Spanish River, three miles below the bar and nine miles from the town of Sydney, a blockhouse and four-gun battery guarded the coal-mining area. This battery and blockhouse dated from the American Revolution, but were repaired in the crisis of 1812. As early as 1759 a blockhouse and small battery had been established at this point for the protection of soldiers mining coal. During the War of 1812, the battery mounted four 12-pounders on traversing platforms. A non-commissioned officer of the Royal Artillery and six gunners lived in the blockhouse.22

The sole survivor of all the blockhouses built during the War of 1812 is the west blockhouse at St. Andrews. Visual evidence and limited technical information seem to indicate that most of the blockhouses varied only slightly from this one. They were all built for similar purposes: support for batteries, accommodation for artillerymen and militia manning the guns, arms depots, and rallying points for the militia. All such fortifications were temporary works, intended primarily to repel privateers. There is no evidence to suggest that any of these defences ever came under attack. As early as November 1812 it was known that commissions issued to privateers by the American government expressly forbade any incursions on shore.23 This prohibition, coupled with the defensive measures financed by the provincial assembly, combined to make life in the coastal communities peaceful for the duration of the war.

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